Bishop Tan Yanquan (center) is shown being consecrated in his current ecclesiastic rank in China's Nanning Diocese in 2013. He is flanked by Bishop Ma Yinglin of Kunming Diocese (left) and Bishop Jin Peixing of Liaoning Diocese. (ucanews.com photo)
Chinese government officials often make headlines for engaging in graft, or suspected graft, but it seems that church superiors are also susceptible to corruption, potentially on an alarming scale.
Bishop Tan Yanquan of Nanning Diocese in Guangxi Province in southern China is a case in point. He is suspected of embezzling 27 million yuan (US$4 million) of church funds to open at least five private companies. The prelate is also believed to be millions of yuan in debt due to property investment losses.
As a result, he has been unable to cover the basic living expenses, medical coverage or pension premiums of priests, nuns and other congregation members in his diocese.
Many suspect cases like this are just the tip of the iceberg due to unwritten rules that forbid the Church from exposing scandals that would cast it in a bad light, which has led to a culture of cover-ups .
This "culture of silence" in the name of "protecting" the Church, no matter whether it relates to the sexual abuse of minors or embezzlement of church funds, is one of the biggest threats to the legitimacy of the Church today.
In China, some claim it is easier for wrongdoers to encroach on church property because the Chinese Catholic Church does not have a supervisory system in place to guard against this.
However, the main reason for the rampant corruption within the Chinese Church is because so many people involved in this institution have no real faith at all.
If they really had God in their hearts, they would not engage in actions that are so detrimental to the spiritual health and reputation of the Church of Christ.
St. Paul made some noteworthy remarks about greed in Timothy I 6:8-10 when he said, "as long as we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. People who long to be rich are prey to trial; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and harmful ambitions, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. 'The love of money is the root of all evil' and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds."
One wonders sometimes if Chinese clerics have forgotten St. Paul's teachings.
The evil that arises from greed is often cited in the Bible, so how do those corrupt Chinese priests and ministers reconcile that with their own behavior? Such hypocrisy boggles the mind.
In fact, the secularization of the Chinese Church is now an incontestable fact of life in mainland China.
The Church has changed beyond recognition. It appears to have lost its original mission of evangelization and is now more about pursuing pleasure and disregarding the teachings of Jesus.
This is not only a result of its growing separation from the universal Catholic Church, which has been happening for decades, but is also the result of the political compromises the Chinese Church has made.
When the Chinese Church effectively branched off and chose instead to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it sowed the seeds that have today grown into toxic fruit.
Regarding Bishop Tan, he is also known to have signed a contract with Nanning Qiai Property Services — without the authorization of the Church — to rebuild the Sacred Heart Church in Nanning. This involved several units of the property being sold off illegally for personal gain.
Victims of a church-run investment scheme hang banners seeking compensation for their losses from Bishop Ma Yinglin in southwest China's Kunming Diocese, in this 2017 file photo. (Photo supplied)
Unfortunately, Bishop Ma Yinglin of Kunming, also in southern China, seems to have gone down the same road as Bishop Tan. He, too, has conducted fraudulent activities in the name of developing church property.
Kunming Diocese was working with a developer on a reconstruction project known as Kunming Subway 101. It also set up a Catholic self-support management center to oversee the leasing of retail space for shops at a mall.
The project's site received government approval in 2008, and in 2013 the diocese worked with Yunnan Wang Guo Investment to build a complex including a cathedral, bishop's residence, wedding venue, and a shopping mall.
The project was later deemed illegal, with construction suspended and the center disbanded. Reports claim this caused over 100 investors to suffer total losses of US$15 million.
They are now seeking restitution based on their contention that they deposited their investment money in bank accounts held by the church, and the diocese was referenced in the contracts they signed. Moreover, all of the advertisements promoting the project named the diocese and feature a photograph of Bishop Ma.
Kunming Diocese published a statement in a local newspaper on July 25, 2017, in which it claimed it never set up the management center and that none of the staff who had been working there were clergymen, or had been appointed by the government. It effectively denied any responsibility and threatened to sue those who continued to defame or slander its name.
One could understand a dishonest businessman with no religious faith for not holding his conscience to account, as that person would presumably worship only material and financial gain.
However, as pastors of the Church, and representatives of Christ in the world, those bishops who stray from the path of righteousness and betray both their consciences and the law are clearly a major cause of concern.
We can say the Chinese Church is now sick, and possibly beyond repair.
Although Pope Francis has accepted the illegal Chinese bishops, the stance of the Chinese authorities remains somewhat ambiguous.
The Church in China seems to be in communion with the universal Church, but the former insists on nominating and ordaining its own bishops without seeking the endorsement of the Holy See.
This is because the Chinese government itself is corrupt and secularized. If the Chinese bishops want to play it safe, they must follow the Chinese authorities. That is the rule of the game. Moreover, Beijing does not allow "foreign powers," including the Vatican, to interfere with it business.
The Chinese Church has been prone to secular corruption for decades. It has become stained with the red color associated with the graft-riddled CCP. And if it wants to rectify that — to follow the metaphor, through a process of bleaching — the work certainly cannot be done in a day.
The exposed corrupt practices of the two aforementioned bishops also reflects the core reason why the Chinese Church has been, and continues to develop as such a slow pace: its pastors care more about lining their own pockets than spreading the Gospel.
One wonders how such bishops can inspire and persuade other priests and Catholics to follow them.
John Lo is a Catholic priest in China.